A Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson
for the Fourth Sunday inAdvent
by William Klock
I’d like to look this evening at our Old Testament lesson, taken from Isaiah 40. Isaiah’s prophecies break down fairly neatly into two parts. Chapters 1 to 39 are God’s pronouncements of judgement on the Jews and the nations around them. Chapters 40 to 66 are God’s pronouncements of comfort and hope to his people in exile. Our lesson today begins that second section—the section where God comforts his people in their tribulation. It starts with those familiar words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” But I’d like to take a quick look at Chapter 39 first, because it transitions us from the first part of the book to the second. In chapters 38 and 39 Isaiah records some of the life of King Hezekiah and shows us how Judah got herself into trouble.
What’s interesting is that Isaiah doesn’t give us an example from the life of one of the bad kings—one of the kings who encouraged Judah to engage in pagan idolatry or something like that. No, he shows us a scene from the life of one of the good kings. Sometime about 705 B.C. the king of Babylon sent his son as an ambassador to king Hezekiah. At the time Babylon was subject to the Assyrians. Sargon II, the Assyrian emperor, had died and the Babylonian king tried to break away from the Assyrian empire during the turmoil, so in an attempt to strengthen his hand, he sent emissaries like this to various neighbouring nations. He was trying to find friends and allies against the Assyrians. So he tries to sweet-talk Hezekiah. Isaiah gives us this disturbing picture of the king. Hezekiah had stood firm in the face of Assyrian intimidation because of his faith in God and his trust that God would take care of his people. And yet now the Babylonian ambassador comes and Hezekiah melts in the face of the flattery he offers. Hezekiah takes this ambassador all over the city, showing off everything he has: his wealth and all his military power. When he stood alone against Assyria he had faith in God. Now that he has a potential role to play in bringing down Assyria, he starts trusting not in God, but in horses and chariots and the power of his pagan neighbours—the very people God had told the Jews to keep apart from. What Hezekiah really does, without realising it, is to foolishly reveal the extent of his wealth—he invites the Babylonians to come and plunder Judah.
When Isaiah hears about this, he confronts Hezekiah. He asks him what he thinks he’s doing. And Hezekiah, rather proudly, tells him that this ambassador has come from a far country and that he’s shown him everything. Hezekiah’s basking in his own power and prestige, but even worse, he’s totally bedazzled by this pagan foreign power. Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, tells Hezekiah that the day is coming when nothing will be left of Judah—everything will be carried away by these Babyonians and that his own sons, or descendants, will be carried away too, to serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. Those are disturbing words. Not only will the kingdom fall, but Isaiah doesn’t leave a lot of hope for the continuation of Hezekiah’s line—his sons will be emasculated and no longer able to carry on the line. You’d think that Hezekiah would be repenting in dust and ashes at this point, but instead he responds to Isaiah saying, “That’s great! That means that my days will be days of peace and prosperity.” He doesn’t really care what happens after he’s gone, just that everything will be fine in his time. Hezekiah lost his perspective and forgot his duty as the king—the leader—of God’s people.
Over the next two hundred years the situation got worse and worse. It went from the irresponsibility and foolishness of this “good” king to the outright sin, idolatry, and paganism of the truly bad kings who followed after him. And the end result was that what God had spoken through Isaiah did come about: he punished his people by allowing the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, to destroy the temple, to carry away everything of value, and even to take the people into exile.
And now God speaks these words of hope through Isaiah to those faithful people of his living in exile 200 years later:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
God begins by commissioning his preacher—the voice that cries out in verses 3 and 6 and that heralds the good news from the mountain tops in verse 9. There’s a reason why this has been called the Gospel of Isaiah. The prophet proclaims God’s good news to his faithful people as they live in the depths of the world’s darkness—to “Jerusalem”. The people weren’t in Jerusalem any longer, they were in exile, but wherever God’s people are in the world, they themselves are his Jerusalem—God’s kingdom. That would be especially true when Christ came to establish his kingdom. Since Christ, it’s no longer about a place, but about a people—not a physical land or a physical temple, but about a kingdom of people whose hearts are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. God proclaims that coming reality here to a people raw from warfare and tribulation. God comes and speaks lovingly and tenderly to them. They had sinned. He had punished. But he had never ceased to love them and they had never ceased to be his people.
Think of how you deal with your children. Even when you’re angry with them and have to punish them when they do wrong, you don’t cease to love them, they don’t cease to be your children. I remember being disciplined when I was young. My mom or dad would send me to my room and they’d tell me to stop at the kitchen on the way there so that I could select a wooden spoon. I’d go to my room and sit on the bed. I’d put the spoon on the opposite end, as far from myself as possible. Eventually Mom or Dad would come. The worse I’d done, the longer it took. They wanted to make sure they had time for their anger to cool down. I’d be spanked. It wasn’t a fun thing. It was painful and it was humiliating to be bent over a knee with my pants around my ankles. Afterward Mom or Dad would sit me on their lap, give me a hug, and explain that they loved me and that their discipline was to teach me to obey. Israel’s situation is very much parallel my own experience. They had refused to obey and so God punished them—not sadistically, but to teach them to trust him and to obey him. The experience was painful, not to mention humiliating. But God now comes to his people, puts his arms around them and comforts them: they’ve been punished and that time of punishment is going to continue, but their pardon will come. He offers them hope.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God’s people were in the wilderness. Not literally. When they went into exile to Babylon they went to the cultural capital of the world, but it was a culture totally opposed to the ways of God and to his kingdom. There’s a reason why from that time forward, Babylon became a metaphor for the sinful ways and kingdoms of the world. Israel was in a spiritual wilderness—dry, barren, starving—and not simply because God had allowed them to be taken there, but because they had put themselves there first by abandoning him. Imagine how the faithful remnant felt. Many of them had been faithful through all the sins of Judah and yet they had been carried into exile too. Some had come to faith as a result of the exile. Regardless, though, they were now in a foreign nation. They might have wanted to please God and to worship him, but there was no temple anymore and as we see in books like Daniel, they faced persecution and even death for openly worshiping God. These were people who especially associated God with a place—with Jerusalem and with the temple. Those places were gone. And in the midst of the wilderness, he proclaims that he will build a highway in that desert—a highway that will lead the faithful back to him. He describes the mountains and valleys and rough ground that blocked the way to Jerusalem from the east—from Babylon—and says that this highway will cut through them. The valleys will be raised up and the mountains brought low so that world will see his glory.
Is this is a prophecy of the Jews returning to Jerusalem from exile? Many people have seen it that way, but that’s a shallow interpretation. Returning from their Babylonian exile wasn’t going to save the people. It wasn’t going to meet their deepest spiritual needs—it wouldn’t truly lead them out of their desert. This is a prophecy of something a lot more important; it’s a prophecy that points to the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who would attract the attention of the world, not just the Jews; and who would himself be the highway in the desert leading all nations to see the glory of the Lord.
And in verse 5 Isaiah reminds the people. This isn’t his proclamation; it’s God’s—and when God gives a promise, you can trust he will be true to it. That’s the second part of his proclamation of comfort. Look at verses 6 to 8:
A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
God contrasts himself and his character with that of the weak and fickle people. Think of Hezekiah who was otherwise a wise and good king, and yet still fell into pride and lost sigh of his calling to lead the people by example in trusting God. As men and women our commitments and promises are like grass that dries up in the summer heat or a flower that blooms beautifully for a few weeks, then wilts and drops off the stalk. We should be able to see ourselves in those illustrations if we’re honest. Our love and commitment for God waxes and wanes over the years. We make lots of commitments and then forget about them. We say we trust in God, but when real tribulation comes, by our actions we often demonstrate that we really trust in the world or in ourselves. God tells the people here that his promises aren’t like theirs. They had forgotten their end of the covenant, but he has never forgotten his and he never will. He will bring them salvation. He gives them hope as he gives them his sure promise.
In verse 9 he again commissions his herald:
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. (Isaiah 40:9-10)
“Go tell it on the mountains! Our God is coming to us and he comes with might to bring justice.” And yet he’s not just coming to crush the enemy. In verse 11, we have this picture of Jesus—the coming Messiah. First and foremost, he comes to shepherd his people—to love them, to care for them, and to lead them to the redemption God offers:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
This morning in the Epistle, St. Paul wrote about our “reasonableness”—the gentleness or graciousness that we’re called on to display to the world. We show that gentleness because God has first shown it to us. And we see that here. The great King, the almighty Judge is coming, but he comes first as the loving and gentle shepherd of his straying flock. He comes with might, but he shows gentleness.
Brothers and sisters, think and meditate on that as Advent draws to a close. Advent calls us to prepare for the return of our Lord. He came as the humble and lowly babe who would ride into the royal city on a humble donkey and then die the horrible and humiliating death on the cross, all for the sake of his lambs. And yet he came humbly the first time because when he comes back the second time, he will come with authority, might, vengeance, and justice. He will come back to judge and punish sin. Revelation gives us a graphic and horrifying image of the lake of fire and the final destination of sinners. Advent asks us if we’re ready. Have we availed ourselves of the grace he offers at the cross and that he continues to offer, even up to that last moment? And if we have taken hold of that grace, trusting in Jesus’ atoning death and submitting to him as our Lord, is his grace transforming us? Are we living kingdom lives, or are we still living in the world? And finally, Advent asks us if our hearts are full of the same compassion for the lost that Jesus has. Our Lord desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn from their wickedness and live. Is that our desire too? Are we witnessing the good news of the highway in the desert, the highway that leads to God through Jesus Christ himself? Isaiah was God’s herald almost twenty-eight centuries ago, but God, having redeemed you and me, calls us to be his heralds today—to proclaim the highway of our God, to proclaim his faithfulness to his promises, to proclaim the good news of the grace he offers through Jesus Christ and his blood shed at the cross.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we give you thanks that you have not left your people to languish in the wilderness; that you have been and always will be faithful to your covenant promises. As we live in the grace of your promises, give us the grace and boldness to be heralds of your comfort to the world. Give us opportunities to declare your good news; give us the eyes to see those opportunities; and give us the courage to take advantage of them. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.